USB Microphones: Use Case and Comparison

Would you agree that bad audio can ruin a good video, presentation, or recording? Most certainly.

A while back, I identified mobile mics for recording interview audio on the go. Today, we’ll listen to and compare five USB microphones, illustrate their uses in online instruction, and identify a few principles that will help us get the best results.

Why can’t I use a headset microphone?

For web conference purposes, a headset microphone will suffice, but not for much else. Reason being? Bit Depth and Sample Rate.

Combined, Bit Depth and Sample Rate are the principles at play when digitally capturing and preserving the richness and accuracy of recorded sounds. Even if the eventual output of your audio clip is low resolution (e.g. a musical greeting card or talking teddy bear toy), the objective is to record your audio at as high a quality as possible, then process it downward. And most headset microphones, not all, are designed with lower bit depth and sample rates.

  • What is Sample Rate?
  • What is Bit Depth?
Sample Rate is to audio as Frame Rate is to video. The more frames per second a camera can shoot, the smoother the scene will appear to the viewer. Similarly, subtle nuances and details that can be heard in a live performance or recording studio can be captured and better represented in playback,when recorded using a high sample rate.

Have you ever seen an old western movie where every few seconds the wagon wheels appeared to be rolling backwards? That visual phenomenon occurred when the frame rates were too low, sometimes as low as 14 frames per second (fps). High enough to capture motion, but low enough to make that motion to appear jerky or uneven 1. In audio, the signs of low sample rate present as sounding “under water,” unnaturally low-pitched, or distant.

Bit depth is to audio as pixels per inch is to photo resolution. The higher the pixel count, the richer the colors, and the more vivid the image quality when we view it on a computer or print out. Have you ever seen a photo that appears grainy? That can result from a photo taken in low resolution (fewer pixels per inch) or from being stretched beyond its original pixel resolution. The same can be said about audio. The higher the bit depth, the wider the range of sounds that can be represented by a recording, from the lowest bass to the highest trebles. As in photography, where deeper, wider ranging colors result in large file sizes, so to do audio recordings full of wide-ranging highs and lows.

Audio files saved to MP3 and AAC, for example, generally produce manageable file sizes, but technically constitute a loss in quality. Generally we accept this quality as passable, and the average person likely could not discern a noticeable difference.


Like cell phone calls, the bar for audio quality in web conferencing is actually quite low, sampling at 16 kHz per second. The richness in our voice is a considerably narrow band within the range of human hearing, so to transmit voice signals cheaply over long distances, 16 kHz is the minimum required for intelligible speech. But would you watch movies on TV if they were only as clear as a Skype or cell phone call? Face to face or on a personal call, as long as you can make out what is being said, we can use contextual cues to fill our communication gaps, and if we miss it we can ask people to repeat themselves or speak up. But when it comes to recording course content, we don’t have those luxuries.

For CD quality audio, and that which we record and stream online, the recommended sample rate and bit depth are 41 kHz/16-bit. For DVD video and recorded lectures and screencasts, 48 kHz/16-bit is the norm, but 24-bit also fairly common.

Use Cases

As of late, consumers and professionals have taken to recording audio podcasts/interviews, screencast demonstrations, and are planning to host more live, interactive presentations than before (ex. YouTube Live). For these reasons, I have recommended that talent and presenters consider external USB microphones to improve the audio quality of their multimedia pieces and presentations.

The microphones I have chosen to test and compare have a few things in common.

  1. A simple USB connection. Plug it in and record, so setup is easy as 1, 2, 3.
  2. All capable of sampling at 44.1kHz or 48 kHz and at 16-bits.
  3. Headphone monitor capability. Listen to yourself while you record to confirm clarity, gain and to make sure your audience will hear what you hear.
  4. Mac/Windows compatible.
  5. Price. Those compared here range from $40-$99, and the $40 options may give the pricier options a run for their money.

This comparison focused on microphones that met all five of the basic criteria, in order to narrow down the many, many options.

Compact USB Microphones

(interviews/web conferences)

For most consumers and professionals, a compact USB mic will go the distance, literally. Lightweight and collapsible, compact USB microphones like the Samson Go Mic and Go Mic Connect fit into your backpack, your purse, and your active lifestyle. The aforementioned microphones can clip onto your laptop or monitor, and stand steady on a flat surface. Both microphones mentioned also allow the user to toggle between unidirectional and omnidirectional polar patterns, which means you can record content solo and eliminate feedback, or conduct an interview between two or more people, depending on proximity and ambient conditions. Let’s have a listen:

  • Samson Go Mic
  • Samson Go Mic Connect

Samson Go Mic appears clipped onto a Mac Book Pro laptop computer displaying its tactile swtich, and logo

The published frequency response for the Samson Go Mic is 80 Hz – 18kHz, which implies predetermine low-pass and high-pass. Essentially, the mic is limited in its ability to capture a range low end bass frequencies and some high end treble. A few users might add this to the Cons column,  but this actually confirms its bare bones, on-the-go nature features that make it an excellent choice for normal vocal range, which aids in transmission over internet lines, and helps to reduce files sizes when recorded.

Samson GoMic – Cardioid Pattern

Male – Samson GoMic – 10db.wav

Male – Samson GoMic – Omnidirectional.wav

Pros: The Samson Go Mic is a simple, multipurpose USB mic with excellent frequency response in the vocal range that performs as advertised. Lightweight, compact, plug and play, minimum acceptable bit depth and sample rates, Windows/Mac compatible, Zero Latency monitoring, multiple polar pattern options and -10db noise reduction. The Go Mic clips onto any laptop screen, and can stand on a flat surface.

Cons: The Go Mic can not clip onto a standard computer monitor, but can stand on a flat surface and is stand mountable. Another slight drawback is that the volume control for headphone monitoring is controlled at the computer, rather than on the mic.

Uses: Web conference, screencast recording, podcasts, lectures, and interviews.

Price: $39.99.

Samson Go Mic Connect appears clipped to a Mac Book Pro laptop displaying its logo and microphone mesh grill

While I would argue that the Go Mic Connect was designed to fill in a gap between the Go Mic and Meteor models, it would seem from their marketing that the mic is targeted towards real-time video game players and Skype/Facetime chatters unhappy with their device’s built-in components. For the average consumer, I feel this model takes it a bit too far with extreme gain sensitivity, and unforgiving omnidirectional polar pattern. The unit does come with a carry case that fits the mic and cable, but the shape and design make it slightly annoying difficult to pack tightly into a backpack or purse without worry of bending or breaking.

Samson Go Mic Connect (Beam Form Technology active)

Pros: Like the Go Mic, the Samson Go Mic Connect is lightweight, compact, has minimum acceptable bit depth and sample rates, is Windows/Mac compatible, has Zero Latency monitoring (for PC only), and offers flexible polar patterns and noise reduction. The Go Mic Connect features an omni directional polar pattern with proprietary beam forming technology which effectively forms a shotgun style pick-up pattern, but is not technically shotgun, and still not cardioid. The Go Mic Connect clips onto any laptop screen, standard computer monitor and can stand on a flat surface.

Cons: Unfortunately, the drawbacks of the Go Mic Connect are simple, but major, and for some, they could be deal breakers. For starters, the Go Mic Connect requires a software download in order to maximize performance. The file size of the software is small, and operating the software doesn’t require any formal schooling, but it’s a step removed from plug and play, which so many consumers prefer and desire. The software varies slightly from Mac to PC, which, while not an issue for most, could be irksome to those using both operating systems. The Go Mic Connect also has an extremely sensitive capsule. For professional podcasters or real-time video gamers with a shy sounding voice this can be an advantage, but it may take some experimenting to get the levels you like. And lastly, for Mac users, the latency in monitoring is echoey and unusable. When you plug it in, mute or remove your headphones and navigate straight to your system’s input levels. Otherwise, prepare for your ears to be left ringing.

Uses: Screencast recording, podcasts, lectures, and interviews.

Price: $49.99

Desktop USB Microphones

(screencast/podcast recording)

Desktop USB microphones, you will notice, resemble traditional microphones in both appearance and design, and either come with a stand or are stand mountable. At this price point desktop USB microphones like the Shure MV5, Polsen RC 77u, and Samson Meteor tend to be unidirectional in their pick-up (or polar pattern) and offer tactile volume controls for headphone monitoring. The main benefit of this cardioid pattern is that the microphone is most sensitive at the front, isolating from unwanted ambient noises and reverberant reflections that can cause feedback. This type of USB microphone is also optimal for hosting web conferences or recording voice podcasts and screencast demonstrations. In some cases, though, its size and proximity may be difficult to keep off camera. Let’s have a listen:

  • Samson Meteor
  • Polsen RC77u
  • Shure MV5

Samson Meteor USB microphone with chrome finish showing tactile volume control in front

With a 25mm diaphragm inside the capsule, one of the biggest of any consumer model, the Samson Meteor captures and delivers rich, vibrant and accurate range for both voice and instrument recording. The design has a classic broadcast microphone look, and is manufactured with high grade metal, and durable plastic.

Samson Meteor

Pros: Just like its compact USB counterpart the Go Mic, the Samson Meteor is plug and play, has minimum acceptable bit depth and sample rates, is Windows/Mac compatible, and has Zero Latency monitoring for Mac and PC. The Meteor has a three legged tripod system that can fold down for easy storage, and is stand mountable to any standard threaded microphone stand.

Cons: The tripod folded legs can seem to be in the way when mounted to a standard threaded microphone stand, but that’s never stopped me from mounting one on a stand. The legs, when folded down, can also slip a little on a surface causing it to slump a little, in spite of the rubber tips on the feet.

Uses: Web Conference, Screencast recording, Podcasts, lectures, and interviews.

Price: $69.99.

Polsen RC77 u model USB microphone showing its retro metallic design and tactile volume control knob

The Polsen RC77u was designed with the “retro look” down to the last detail, including the artwork on the box. In that respect, the company also sought to deliver a sound consistent with old-timey microphones from about the 1940s to the 1960s. The old fashioned sound of its analog counterparts could be defined as “smooth and natural top end, mid‑range clarity and low‑end warmth.” 2 Does the Polsen RC77u Deliver?

Polsen RC77u

Pros: The RC77u is plug and play, has minimum acceptable bit depth and sample rates, is Windows/Mac compatible, and has Zero Latency monitoring for Mac and PC. The look and design are truly classic looking, and it features a tactile volume control for headphone monitoring.

Additionally, the Polsen RC77u comes with a lightweight metal stand and a cloth carry bag for scratchless carry in your backpack or purse, and is stand mountable to any standard threaded microphone stand.

Cons: According to the Polsen Audio website the Polsen RC77u has “an integrated dual-stage grille (which) minimizes pops and vocal plosives.” Unfortunately, my testing has proved otherwise. That does not make this a bad microphone, it only means that users with powerful voices would do well to sit back a few inches, and employ a pop-filter. We also experienced some slight latency monitoring using Adobe Audition in the Multitrack editor mode. Otherwise, latency was not noticed.

Uses: Screencast recording, podcasts.

Price: $59.95

Shure MV5 microphone viewed slightly off axis atop its arched microphone stand.

I saved the Shure MV5 for last, because it offers some unique features above and beyond our five point checklist. For starters, the MV5 comes with a lightning adapter cable, allowing users to plug into an iPad or iPhone. This mobile utility does require an app, but is free and quick to install. Files can be sent or shared from the device and are otherwise identical to their standard computer counterparts. The mobile app has features and audio effects for limiting, compression, and equalization on-the-go. However, I recommend sending the file to your computer and processing those effects using professional software.

Shure MV5 – Flat mode

Shure MV5 – Voice mode

Shure MV5 – Instrument mode

Pros: The Shure MV5 offers three mode settings for flat response, voice, and instrument, which are manufacturer presets designed for non-audio professionals looking to streamline their recording experience. For consumer purposes, it’s an excellent feature. (Audio professionals may consider this a drawback, but I think it’s one I can live with.) The vocal setting is tuned to brighten up frequencies in the vocal range, which to the untrained ear presents as having your voice sound louder than normal. And for the powerful vocal user, the instrument setting serves as a -db pad to soften the blow of loudness.

Cons: While the unit has a tactile volume control for monitoring, it’s kind of tough to reach and does not boost all that high without aid from your computer’s volume controls. The Shure MV5 also comes with a really short stand and a non-standard mount known as ¼-20 thread. Quarter twenty thread is the standard for camera stands, which means you can mount the microphone head to a camera tripod, which would be weird, unless it’s a cellphone tripod (still weird.) But you can purchase ¼ -20 adapters for standard mic stand mounts, and they are not cost prohibitive.

Uses: Screencast recording, podcasts, lecture recording.

Price: $99.00

Conclusion

Of the five mics tested and compared, the Samson Go Mic and Samson Meteor are the runaway heroes for consumers seeking multipurpose microphones, at a fair price with excellent results. The Go Mic offers a bit more flexibility in its capacity to travel, as well as its polar pattern switching and -10 db pad. The Meteor also offers professional quality range and at a fair price. Both are excellent for hosting web conferences and for various types of content recording.

I purchased my personal Go Mic for $34 on Amazon. Prices can fluctuate often due to holidays, sales, and other market conditions so keep an eye out for good deals. The Meteor Mic I own I bought for $25 at a pawn shop, negotiated down from $40. Meteor Mics in excellent condition are readily available on Craigslist and eBay for less than retail price.

The Polsen RC77u is a capable microphone for certain uses and appeals to a unique audience of audiophile if you don’t mind spending a few extra dollars. In the opinion of this reviewer, the RC77u definitely delivers in the low end warmth, but fails in high end brightness and mid range clarity, performing poorly with sibilance. Not a bad microphone, just not retro sounding.

The Shure MV5 offers features not offered on the other four mics including on-the-go adapters for mobile devices and pre-tuned recording modes for non-audio professionals. Its unique build, mounting style and price tag are a slight turn-off, but the results make it a contender for greatness.

Unfortunately, the Samson Go Mic Connect creates more questions than it answers for average audio consumers as well as audio professionals. This mic exhibits latency issues for Mac, but not for PC. It requires a software installation to maximize performance, but one that differs slightly on Mac and PC, creating a mismatch in results across the two systems. The proprietary software does include a beam-forming technology to reduce feedback and ambient noise. What was supposed to be an upgrade to the technology of the Go Mic ended up as a design and delivery disaster.

References:

  1. Romano, F. (Dec 16, 2012) The history of frame rates; why speeds vary. Vanillavideo.com Retreived June 16, 2017 from https://van illavideo.com/blog/2012/history-frame-rates-why-speeds-vary
  2. Robjohns, H. (Jan 2011) What are the characteristics of vintage mics? Sound on Sound. Retrieved on June 20, 2017 from http://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/q-what-are-characteristics-vintage-mics
  3. Microphones: Polar Patterns & Directionality. Shure. Retreived on June 23, 2016 from http://www.shure.eu/support_download/educational_content/microphones-basics/microphone_polar_patterns
  4. Coppinger, R. (10/24/2013) 7 Effective Techniques for Minimizing Plosives. Pro Audio Files. Retrieved on June 23, 2017 from https://theproaudiofiles.com/plosives/

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